After the Fall

A tragic accident on Mount Washington left the survivor groping to understand the death of his climbing partner
December 09, 1991

Ever since his days as a boy Scout, Jamie Huntsman has loved mountain climbing. As a kid in Vermont he would go into rugged Smugglers Notch, scampering up the cliffs with a clothesline hitched to his belt loop. His parents eventually yielded to his unusual passion and gave him a climbing rope on the condition that he take lessons.

In high school in Montpelier, Huntsman, who was also a cross-country ski racer, went out to bag peaks, using snowshoes and crampons, in Vermont's Green Mountains and the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. While attending the University of Rhode Island, he made weekend forays to climbing sites in the Northeast, but during his junior year, in 1975, he decided he would rather scale mountains than academic heights. He left college and headed for the Rockies. Eventually, he made his way back to Vermont, where he now works in a sports-equipment shop and enjoys the outdoor life.

Last winter Huntsman's passion for climbing put him, at the age of 36, in a gully high on New Hampshire's Mount Washington—and in the path of one of climbing's worst nightmares. As he was scaling ice near the top of Huntington Ravine on Feb. 24, an avalanche knocked him off his perch. The fall was terrifying, and his survival ranks among the most miraculous in mountain-climbing annals.

Sliding, tumbling and in free fall, Huntsman plunged 1,400 feet, a distance greater than the height of the Empire State Building. In the seeming eternity before he landed, he endured, he says, a singular out-of-body experience in which he calmly observed himself plummeting down the ravine. Against all odds, he came through this deadly Cuisinart of rock and ice alive, albeit with a banged-up right shoulder, a smashed pubic bone, deep puncture wounds and a body so black-and-blue that it looked as if it had been used as a punching bag.

His good friend and partner on the climbing rope, Tom Smith, who was 41, also fell, and was killed. A Massachusetts native who worked with Huntsman, Smith was an experienced rock climber and an accomplished athlete who was at one time a nationally ranked bike racer. Smith's was the 106th name added to the plaque atop the mountain that sadly commemorates those who have lost their lives on Mount Washington, the Northeast's highest—6,288 feet—and most dangerous peak.

How Huntsman cheated the mountain is both a puzzle and a marvel. "I guess it's one of those mysteries that you just say, for lack of anything else, that it's an act of God," says the tall, sturdy Huntsman, who is married and has a four-year-old son. "I've spent a lot of time wondering why me, not Tom. Why didn't I hit the rock he hit?" So far Huntsman has not been able to find the answers, though he understands that the experience and the loss of his friend have forever changed his life. "I've been through something, but I can't put my finger on what it is," he says.

Had Huntsman and Smith been the kind of people who believe in omens, they might have thought twice about continuing their climb up the ice on that Sunday. On their first pitch, using 150 feet of rope, Huntsman heard a noise and looked to his right. What he saw was another ice climber shooting down an adjacent gully, tumbling like a rag doll, end over end, toward the base of the ravine. He later learned from rescue personnel that the climber had just started up when he lunged to catch a mitten and lost his grip. He ended up with a broken wrist and internal injuries.

But neither Huntsman nor Smith, nor the other two men who had made the trip with them, all competent and well-equipped climbers, had an inkling of what the day had in store for them. The other two climbers were Roger Hirt, a Volvo mechanic from Barre, Vt., and an accomplished climber who had done routes all over the Alps and North America, and Jack Pickett, a Stowe, Vt., chef and avid mountaineer who had made many trips up Mount Washington.

They got up at 4 a.m. that day to make the two-hour drive from Vermont to Pinkham Notch and the trailhead to Huntington Ravine, one of a handful of prime ice-climbing sites in the Northeast. The ravine has five major gullies filled with ice and snow that lead to the summit shoulder of the peak. The appeal of the ravine goes beyond its merits as a place to hone climbing technique. Huntington, an impressive semicircle of steep rock and tenuous vegetation that lies north of the more famous Tuckerman Ravine, has a grandeur that makes it a shrine for adventurous souls who like to scale rock and ice in winter's solitude.

"It's a beautiful place. It's as close to the Alps as you can get in the Northeast," says Hirt.

While avalanches are common on Mount Washington, the danger that February day was not rated high, and the sky was brilliantly clear as the four climbers slogged through snow to the base of the ravine. But by 8:30 a.m., when they passed Harvard Cabin, where climbing parties bunk overnight, clouds had begun to blow in and the wind was picking up.

The group decided to climb Odell's Gully, on the southern end of the ravine. The four climbers cramponed up the steep, fan-shaped slope of fractured rocks and snow-covered scrub brush that led into the narrow entrance of Odell's, framed on the right by a slabbed spire called Pinnacle Buttress. There they broke into two teams to keep from knocking ice down on each other. Hirt and Pickett headed up a steeper route on the right, while Smith and Huntsman decided they would be more comfortable taking an easier route in the center that had less ice and involved less technical climbing.

Huntsman led the first pitch up a big ice bulge near the bottom, laboriously putting in ice screws and securing the rope and then belaying Smith up from below. Smith led the second pitch, and then they took a snack break, because Huntsman was feeling weak. Smith then led up the broadening gully. Progress was slower than expected, and Huntsman says they grew concerned about the deteriorating weather and the snow that had begun to fall. They talked about crossing over through a cut in the gully to take the steeper route of the other two climbers but decided against the move, figuring it wouldn't be any faster.

"I suppose that's one of those things where we might have done something different—I don't know," Huntsman says. "But you talk to people who are experienced, and they say there's no easy answer."

Toward the upper part of the gully, they cut off into the narrow, V-shaped funnel that leads to the safety of the Alpine Garden, the high shoulder of Mount Washington. Here they first encountered loose patches of windblown powder that Huntsman says "didn't feel good." They skirted the patches, taking turns leading with the rope. Huntsman's unease heightened when a small drift of loose snow spun down on him.

By midafternoon they were close to the top of the gully and the security of the ridge line, with Huntsman leading the way over a small ice bulge. Atop it, Huntsman set his ice ax in the hard snow above and tied a rope onto the ax. He then dug a small seat and, facing downhill, set his crampons in the hard-packed snow and yelled, "Belay on!" to Smith, who responded, "Climbing."

It was at that moment that Huntsman got hit by a snowslide.

"I was starting to take in line, and I yelled at Tom to hold on, there's snow coming, and he stopped," Huntsman says. "Then I got hit with a bunch of snow, and it went by me. It was like water. It kind of bent me over a bit, but I didn't feel any danger."

"I figured I'd hold him," says Huntsman, who remembers that the snowslide let up fairly quickly.

Then came a roaring sound.

"The next thing I know I'm flying over this bulge and I'm kind of in the air."

Whatever hit Huntsman flung him over the ice bulge, and he hurtled down on his rear end. He went past Smith, who was dug in with an astounded expression on his face. Huntsman's first instinct was to plant his crampons to try to stop, but he knew that might start him tumbling end over end, or worse, break his ankles. But as his speed increased, he decided he had to dig his feet in, which he tried to do when he felt the tug of the rope. He was hoping that Smith could hold him.

"My crampons just blew off my feet," Huntsman says. He guesses that Smith was probably swept off, or pulled off, by the snow. Joined by the rope, the climbing partners were headed back to where they had begun hours before.

As close friends who had recently become climbing partners, Smith and Huntsman had often indulged in black humor about mountain mishaps. During an ice climb one day in Vermont, Smith said that taking a fall would be like being a "human pinball with stone flippers." He couldn't have been more prophetic.

The narrow icy trough they were on poured the helpless climbers, as would a sluiceway, into the jagged maw of the main gully. Huntsman remembers bouncing off rocks, slamming his shoulder into a huge, scoured stone slab and then being airborne for what seemed like ages. "I remember thinking, This is taking a long time," he says.

And then he had the strange feeling of being out of his body, watching himself as he fell headfirst and thinking that if he wanted to survive, he had better turn himself around. Then he blacked out.

He landed—right side up—on the fan of snow at the bottom; his free-fall was broken by the steep slope, which probably softened the impact by causing him to slide downhill instead of slamming flat. In another improbable twist of fate, the rope that still tied Huntsman and Smith together snagged on a treetop sticking out of the snow, preventing Huntsman from tumbling into the deadly rocks below. Dazed, Huntsman took a mental inventory of body parts and, to his amazement, concluded he was in one piece. Then he began yelling for help.

It was more than an hour before Pickett and Hirt, unaware that their companions had fallen, heard the call for help and discovered Smith and Huntsman. It was around 6 p.m., and pitch dark, before the first rescuers reached Huntsman—by then hypothermic, in shock, bloody from puncture wounds from his ice ax and still in a perilous position. Once additional rescue workers arrived, he was belayed down the icy slope in frigid, hostile weather and finally reached Pinkham Notch three hours later in a snow cat.

The violence of Huntsman's fall still astounds him. It shredded his pack, ripped off his watch and mittens, and littered the ravine with his belongings.

"I had these two peanut butter, honey and raisin sandwiches in the pack in a little plastic bag. They were completely disintegrated. They were just crumbs," he says, able now to laugh about it.

The avalanche that hit Huntington Ravine that day may have been the result of a freak convergence of several factors. Though only 2.5 inches of snow were recorded atop the peak that day, the Mount Washington Observatory clocked winds gusting as high as 139 mph the day before and 74 mph on the day of the climb. Those winds may have scoured snow off the peak and piled it above the gully. The snow that fell on Sunday, or perhaps the wind, may have been all it took to trigger the avalanche that cascaded down on the two climbers.

Huntsman spent five days in Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin, N.H., his battered body turning every color of the rainbow. The accident also left him emotionally battered, and healing those wounds has taken much longer. Nine months later, though the rescue crews agreed he and Smith had done everything right and that no one was to blame, he is still struggling to sort through the emotions and guilt he feels.

In May, Huntsman made a somber and solitary pilgrimage to Huntington Ravine to memorialize his friend and search for some of their belongings. Strewn across the ancient rocks of the ravine beneath Odell's Gully, scattered like snapshots of two lives, he found crampons, his driver's license and parts of his wallet, Smith's goggles, an ice screw, a mitten and pieces of rope.

TWO ILLUSTRATIONSPETER SIS

Free-lancer Andrew Nemethy, a Vermont resident, writes about outdoor subjects.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)